Director Alexander Payne’s film projects, while wildly different, do share the common bond of using a sort of journey to humorously examine some variety of decay in the American fabric. His filmography includes Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and most recently Nebraska, all of which are a variation of a similar theme. Nebraska is perhaps his most moody entry.
Nebraska is the story of an aging, somewhat alcoholic father who vows to collect a $1 million prize for a sweepstakes he believes he has won. Bruce Dern puts forth an Oscar nominated performance as the father, Woody Grant, who after countless efforts to make the trek from Minnesota to Lincoln, Nebraska on foot is joined by his estranged son, David (Will Forte). Woody and David’s journey allow Payne to examine physical, mental, and social decay while still maintaining the satirical humor for which his films have come to be known. Filmed in gloomy black and white, Nebraska feels like what Fargo would have been like if you took out all of the murder and kidnapping. What is left is a cast of wacky Midwesterners who dream of sudden fortune. Woody has grown feeble and borderline delusional. His relationship with his son David is virtually non-existent, but David takes this outlandish opportunity to see if there is a way to develop some sort of bond.
Their journey is a fragmented one. After Woody trips and falls in a hotel room, they are sidelined for a few days in the small town in Nebraska where Woody grew up. It is here where the bulk of the movie takes place. Soon Woody and David are joined by Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb) and other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Nostalgia abounds as David becomes immersed with family and friends of Woody’s who he has not seen since he was a child.
As news of Woody’s supposed wealth reaches the ears of the sleepy Nebraska town, Woody becomes the man of the hour, and David begins to learn things about his father’s past that help him understand a father he’s never really understood. Payne also spins his web of deadpan humor to take the film beyond a simple father-son story, making some thoughtful observations about old age, mental and physical decline, and family.
Overall, Nebraska is Payne’s most simplistic and laid back film. However, it is moody, touching, and very well acted. While Dern receives most of the accolades, Forte is the unsung hero of this film. The Saturday Night Live vet’s first dramatic turn is excellent, and he is the perfect foil to Dern’s cryptic and obsessive personality. In addition, Squibb is outstanding as Woody’s long-suffering but clearly loving wife Kate. Also nominated for an Oscar, Squibb’s performance is the most successful source of humor throughout the film. In a very revealing “family-reunion” scene, Squibb has the audience roaring with laughter after a few choice and well-deserved expletives aimed at some greedy family members.
Nebraska is a small movie with relatively small ambitions. At the heart of the film is David and Woody’s quest for acceptance, albeit in very different ways, and it is relatively successful. While no masterpiece, this is a fine entry for Payne and a great collection of performances. B